Manhattan Jewish Sentinel

December 8, 2003

Rocky Mountain Highs

By URIEL HEILMAN
KEYSTONE, CO

Nowhere in the United States will you come closer to touching heaven than in the mountains of Colorado. And nowhere on God's green earth is the land as beautiful, the sun as bright, or the hills as white as the Rockies in winter.

Colorado is to skiing as New York is to theater; there's simply no better place to do it.

Pristine, powder-covered and varied, there's good reason the Centennial State has a reputation as the skiing capital of North America. With its sweeping views of white Colorado valleys and jagged peaks that appear higher in the sky than the refulgent sun, this country seems handcrafted by the Creator himself expressly for skiing.

Ski areas are scattered almost everywhere in the western half of the state, which is as mountainous as the eastern half of Colorado is flat. Mile-high Denver, which is approximately 5,280 feet above sea level, sits right on the boundary between the plains to the east and the Rockies to the West, and the capital city itself is flatter than the island of Manhattan.

Though you can go skiing almost anywhere in western Colorado, the resorts directly west of Denver are the state's most accessible-close enough to the city for skiers to fly into Denver International Airport but far enough to preserve the sense of solitude and isolation ski vacationers crave. These resorts include such destinations as Vail, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone and Beaver Creek. You'll have to go a bit farther to reach resorts like Aspen, which is a five-hour drive from Denver, and the mountains in the state's southwestern corner, in the Durango area, have remarkable skiing terrain but are quite far-they're actually closer to Albuquerque, NM, than they are to Denver.

Though mountains with world-famous names sometimes are also known for being unreasonably expensive, there are plenty of places to ski in Colorado that are actually quite affordable. And if you book early or ski during off-peak times, there are many bargains to be had. Either way, your vacation will feel like a steal once you find yourself atop one of the state's enormous mountains, looking down at a multitude of trails that descend into a blur of whiteness as the wind whips at your parka and the flakes fall in front of your eyes.

When I finally decided to head out to the eastern Rockies, for the first time in my life, the mountains of Breckenridge, Keystone and Beaver Creek-all within two hours of Denver-seemed like ideal destinations for a five-day trip. All relatively close to one another and with reputations for diverse terrain, exceptional powder, and remarkable amenities, the three resorts were excellent choices. Of course, it's hard to go wrong if you're going to Colorado.

Breckenridge

When you arrive at the 140-year-old mining town nestled in the eastern Rockies that's named after this country's youngest-ever vice president, you'll discover very quickly that the natives have you pegged as an outsider. And it won't just be because your bags have tags from Kennedy Airport and you have no clue how to get to your hotel. It's because the locals in Breckenridge have a vernacular all their own. Up in these parts, Breckenridge Mountain is known simply as "Breck," mountains with peaks over 14,000 feet are called "fourteeners," and the tons of white stuff that fall every winter is "powder," not snow.

Regardless of whether or not you speak the language of this particular locale, you'll understand why more than a million visitors flock to Breckenridge every winter: This place is-in the international language of skiing-totally awesome.

With a 10-peak range that towers over the old mining town turned resort village at its base, Breckenridge is as exciting as it is imposing. Breck's range is so high in the air-it's highest summit tops off at 13,000 feet-that even the trees can't make it all the way up the mountain. As far as skiers are concerned, that's a good thing, because the absence of trees up top makes for some challenging expert terrain. The 2,000-acre mountain doesn't just have trails; it's got bowls and chutes and summits and terrain that's so eclectic it doesn't quite fit into any single category.

The real fun is at the north end of the mountain (Peak 7), where an open face is marked only by a few thin lines of trees serving as separators between double-diamond trails with names like Forget-Me-Not, Boundary Chutes and Vertigo. This area is accessible only by T-bar-perhaps because it's so windy up there-and even with the T-bar you'll need to hike uphill if you want to reach the farthest reaches of this peak, beyond the tree line. If you have enough energy for the hike and enough mettle for a formidable challenge, you might want to try Art's Bowle, which, with a pitch of 42 degrees, is the mountain's steepest run.

If you want to ski rather than hike, half-a-dozen trails are accessible right off the T-bar. The treacherous trails, some of which are marked by moguls and steep drop-offs, converge at the bottom of a double-diamond bowl to end up in a zone of comfortable intermediate skiing. This is one of the mountain's most solitary areas, and you can easily lose your skiing partner in between the clusters of trees and different folds in the terrain. The snow is thick and pristine, and there's plenty of opportunity to explore before finding your way over to the lone trail or two that leads back to the nearest lift and the Bergenhof base area.

Bergenhof is at one of six lodges on the mountain, three of which are mid mountain. Because most of the expert trails are higher up on the mountain and the easier trails are lower down, the mid-mountain lodges make great lunchtime meeting points for the whole family. Most of them are even near ski-school areas. At the end of the day, a circuitous three-and-a-half mile beginner's trail called Four O'Clock, which runs near some private mountainside homes, makes a great last run, and if you're staying in town it will put you right on Park Avenue, one of the small town's primary thoroughfares.

As with any skiing experience, it's best to stay slopeside, of course, and you can't get any closer than the Great Divide Lodge, which is at the base of the mountain and is the only full-service hotel in town. The lodge has all the conveniences of a five-star hotel, with plenty of cozy rooms that have mountainside views. For the full post-skiing experience, the lobby has comfortable chairs and a roaring fire, and the indoor pool and jacuzzi are great places for après-skiing dips and sips. If you need to stretch first, there's an exercise room next door.

The Great Divide is particularly convenient at Breck because it's close not only to the mountain-you'll only have to carry your skis across the street-but to downtown, too.

The historic town, started by miners in 1859 when John C. Breckenridge was vice president, is a variegated panoply of dark hues of blue, maroon, brown and yellow. Some of the nineteenth-century structures from Breckenridge's early days still line Main Street, including the old jail where drunk miners used to cool off after nights of too much carousing. An old brothel on a side street has been turned into a family restaurant and bar plastered with photographs of famous local historic personages-some of whom may also have been erstwhile clients of the burlesque establishment.

Along with the brothel's decommissioning, more than 200 shops, boutiques, restaurants, bars and art galleries have opened up in the intervening years, making the town a perfect place to while away afternoon and evening hours.

Breckenridge is most perfect, of course, for skiing, and while you can't ski all year around, the owners at Breck have done their damndest to make sure you can ski as long as possible. Just in case old man winter comes late to the Rockies, Breck's owners use snowmaking early in the season to make sure diehard skiers can get on the slopes even before the big winter snows, which tend to start in late November. With an average annual snowfall of 300 feet, there's plenty of white stuff all season, even if you don't make it to Colorado until April. This year, nearly nine feet of snow fell by Thanksgiving.

Keystone

If you've ever found yourself eyeing a stunning snow-capped mountain vista in a magazine or billboard advertisement and wondering if a place that beautiful actually exists, you need wonder no more: The answer is at Keystone.

There is a little footbridge at this idyllic resort that connects the mini-town at Keystone's base area with the lower-altitude chairlifts that carry skiers up the mountain. The bridge isn't that essential; it spans a creek a few yards wide and most of the people who cross it probably hardly notice it. But if you pause on that footbridge and look away from the mountain toward the creek's source, or downstream, following the river's winding path, you'll see a scene that is straight out of a fairy tale.

Little rocks covered with snow direct the flow of the river, which winds around small fir trees and bushes toward a valley where the sun sets. Upstream, snow-blanketed mountains frame a picture-perfect, tree-lined valley where deer occasionally run through the waist-deep powder. The day I walked across the bridge at sunset, after all the skiers had gone home, an old fisherman stood in the creek in thigh-high boots, casting his fly as tiny snowflakes fell, swirling around the cap he had pulled down over his weather-beaten face. The sky overhead was a shade of darkening blue, but in the nearby mountains on the other side of the valley clouds had already clustered and a heavy late-afternoon snow had begun to fall. By night, the snow would reach Keystone and coat the footbridge with four new inches of light, dry powder. For the moment, all the fisherman and I could hear was the bubbling of the water. Serenity reigned supreme.

Located about 90 miles west of Denver, this 12,000-foot mountain has more than 1,800 skiable acres and a trio of summits that cover roughly 3,000 vertical feet from base to peak. Keystone actually comprises three different mountains, each of which is accessible to skiers only by its next-highest peak. The lowest of Keystone's summits-and the one for which the resort is named-is its most heavily traveled, and it includes blues, greens, some blacks, and a pair of terrain parks and a half-pipe to keep tricksters busy all winter long.

Farther up the mountain, intermediate trails give way to expert ones, and at the resort's most remote peak, the 12,200-foot Outback, it takes at least two chairlift rides and three runs just to get back to your car. Because of its remoteness, the Outback is the least traveled area of the mountain, and its solitude makes the views from its bowls, blues, and black-diamond trails all the more stunning. There are miles upon miles of white peaks and verdant valleys with gray-green fir trees coated in snow without a road in sight. If you're in the Outback, you may as well be a million miles away from civilization.

Those who stay at Keystone get that same sensation once the mountain closes and the day visitors go home. The base area is a little resort village that includes several lodges, a few stores and-for those so inclined-a Starbucks. In the late afternoons, children gather around a controlled bonfire in the village square for a storytelling hour with a "mountain man" who dresses the part and regales village children with tales of exploits in the snowy wilderness. He parks his sled and pack of snow dogs nearby, and when the storytelling is over, the mountain man disappears back into the wilderness, off to his secret backwoods hideaway-or his SUV in the parking lot around the corner.

Keystone is a family resort, and there is plenty to keep families busy. Aside from the mountain, the little village is built to suit families. Parents can relax with an eye on their children playing in the town square from their perch at the Starbucks or at a nearby jazzy tavern. Foot traffic in the little village mixes only with snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ice-skating. There are free sleigh-rides to take guests to any of several restaurants for dinner, and there are a few after-hours pubs that serve drinks and feature live music for those who like to stay out late. The resort also has late afternoon arts-and-crafts programs for children. Most of the after-hours family activities at Keystone are free for resort guests.

While some things are free, skiing obviously is not, but it's a lot less than you'd expect, especially if you come at off-peak times. Late in the season, Keystone offers ski-and-stay packages as low as $59 per night. Keystone is also one of the few Colorado ski resorts with nighttime skiing; the ski mountain stays open till 8 PM and tubing is available until 10.

On my visit, I stayed in a two-bedroom condo in the heart of Keystone Village, at the Mountain House Base area, that was as spacious as it was resplendent. A large kitchen equipped with a full-size fridge, pots and pans, silverware, and pretty much anything else you might need in your kitchen (minus the food) opened up onto a roomy living room with a gas-burning fireplace and plenty of cozy lounging spots. The bedrooms, though humongous, were outfitted with the sorts of things that give ski chalets a homey feel, like books and board games. The condo was part of a hotel-like building that had a common area with billiard tables, games, and a big-screen TV; the heated pool and jacuzzi were outside. The condos are available for purchase and seasonal reservation; interestingly, a couple of the rooms even had mezuzahs on the doors.

Denver, after all, is not that far away from Keystone, and more than a few Jews-including some who keep kosher and Shabbat-have homes up here. At Vail, which is about half an hour down the road, there occasionally are Orthodox Shabbat minyans that meet in a private home.

Beaver Creek

Just down the road from Vail-which, as the most popular ski resort in the U.S., can also get a bit crowded-there is a quiet European-style Alpine village that is home to one of the finest ski resorts in the country.

Beaver Creek, adjacent to the town of Avon, Colorado, is the perfect escape from the Vail crowds and a delightful place for schussing and relaxing. Constructed to resemble an Alpine town, BC makes up in luxury what it lacks in crowds. It is one of the few ski areas in the world with a Ritz Carlton on the premises, and nearly every lodge in the town approximates the Ritz's level of service and comfort.

At the Pines Lodge, a cozy hotel tucked into the mountain that is accessible by ski trail, spacious rooms are outfitted with king-size beds, high-speed internet computers, television entertainment systems, massive bathrooms and fantastic views. At night, the outline of the 11,500-foot mountain looks down on thousands of twinkling lights and a postcard-perfect scene. An ice skating rink at the center of town is filled with village children playing ice hockey and watchful parents sipping hot chocolate. The crisp evening air is ripe with the pungent aroma of cedar, emanating from the chimneys that anchor gorgeous homes and expansive chalets. Because private cars are not allowed at BC, the windy roads are almost entirely empty, and the absence of vehicles lends the town an air of bygone times-sort of a cross between Normal Rockwell America and the tranquility of a Swiss Alpine village.

For some, like former president Gerald Ford, this is home. The nation's 38th president has a house here, though sources tell me Ford does more golfing at BC than skiing.

For those who come to Colorado to ski, BC has more than 1,600 skiable acres, a 4,000-foot vertical rise, and 146 well-tended trails. Resort officials say they are acutely tuned to their clientele's powder preferences, which is why about half the mountain is meticulously groomed. Like Deer Valley, its counterpart in Utah, BC pampers those who like to ski fast and neat. The resort has 13 grooming vehicles, some of which operate throughout the day, and every morning the mountain provides skiers with a grooming report. For those who like things rough and powdery, there are plenty of trails left wild, and some runs are half groomed and half wild-perfect for the partners who can never agree to ski the same runs.

The mountain itself is best suited for intermediates and beginners, though more than a quarter of the mountain's trails are black diamonds, one or two of which are more straight drops than they are trails. BC hosts World Cup racing competitions, and the World Cup run at BC is so challenging that it's rated as the second-most difficult World Cup track in the world in its category. Unlike most mountains, the greens at BC are situated near the top of the mountain, so beginners can get some of the best views. The blacks are generally limited to two of BC's multiple summits, so they're easy to avoid if you're just getting started.

My skiing companion and I got a tour of the mountain from a volunteer guide named Vic, a 70-year-old Princeton graduate with more than half a century of skiing experience in Colorado. An affable gentleman, Vic provided running narration as he took us around the mountain, pointing out the Rocky ranges visible on our way down (Gore Mountain Range, opposite BC, has 26 summits, named A through Z) and explaining who the six bachelors were behind the inspiration for the name Bachelor's Gulch.

The gulch is the name of one of the three villages serviced by the mountain, each of which is accessible from the slopes but requires a few miles of driving to reach by car. So if you like exploring, you can actually ski village to village at BC, traveling between Beaver Creek Village, Bachelor's Gulch and Arrowhead Village using nothing more than your skis and a couple of chairlifts.

At BC, even cross-country skiers get to go up the mountain; the resort's cross-country ski track is on top of one of the lower mountains, at elevation 9,840 feet.

Beaver Creek does all the little things right-including some things you probably couldn't even dream up. In the late afternoons, ski instructors and volunteers stand at the bottom of the slopes handing out freshly baked hot chocolate chip cookies to those coming off the mountain. At night, visitors can take a snowcat-drawn sleigh halfway up the mountain to a log cabin hidden in the trees just off of an out-of-the-way trail for an evening of fine dining in Beano's Cabin. If you have the time, you can even ski across the mountains to an adjacent village a couple of miles away, just like in the European Alps. There's also fly-fishing, snowshoeing, and dog sledding.

At night, there's no better way to relax your tired muscles than to go to the fitness center at the Pines Lodge, where there is a heated outdoor pool, an indoor jacuzzi and an exercise room, sauna and steam room. The hotel also has complimentary newspapers, including NY-area ones like the Times and the Wall Street Journal, which provide perfect cover for sneaking an early-evening, post-ski nap.

If you've got the energy and you want to go out at night, there's not that much to do in BC other than curl up in front of the fire or go ice skating, but there are plenty of restaurants, bars, and night activities a few miles down the road, at Vail, which around these parts is known as the village that never sleeps. Vail Village is a bit kitschy, but it's the kind of place that can actually pull it off. Art galleries are interspersed with real estate offices, Alpine clothing shops and eateries, and everything is part of one long pedestrian mall. Late in the season, you may see snow parka-clad skiers sharing the sidewalk with T-shirt wearing mountain bikers. And everybody seems to get along.

Planning Your Trip

Denver International Airport is less than two hours away from each of the resorts listed above, and most major US airlines fly to Denver. If you're coming from New York, you'll probably find the best deal on JetBlue, which flies out of JFK and which has NY-Denver round trips for as low as $200. The airline has one daily flight to and from Colorado; it leaves New York at 9:30 PM on the outbound leg and returns on an overnight red-eye for the inbound trip back to New York. Aside from having one of the youngest fleets in the nation and new steel cockpit doors for safety and security, the New York-based carrier has all leather seats and television sets at every seat, so you need not rely on magazines alone. JetBlue also flies to other ski-accessible airports, including Salt Lake City, Oakland (to access Tahoe), upstate New York, and Burlington, VT. To make reservations, call 800 JET-BLUE or visit www.jetblue.com.

For convenience's sake, you're best off renting a car from the airport to drive west toward the mountains (call your resort destination for directions), but you can get to the ski resorts on relatively inexpensive shuttle buses as well. The problem with the buses is that they don't run with great frequency, and their schedules may not mesh with your flight schedule. Visit www.coloradoskicountry.com or www.vailresorts.com for more information.

Breckenridge Mountain, which is the closest to Denver of the three resorts, can be reached at 970 453-5000, or by visiting www.breckenridge.com. The Great Divide Lodge can be reached at 970 547-5725. Keystone is at 970 496-2316 or online at www.keystoneresort.com. For lodging reservations, call 877 753-9786. For Beaver Creek, call 800 427-8308, or visit www.beavercreek.com. The Pines Lodge, along with other BC lodging facilities, is reachable at 800 427-8308.

For the best deals, visit the resort's website before calling to make your reservations. Internet and package deals can significantly reduce yours costs, and because Breckenridge, Keystone and Beaver Creek are all owned by the same company, you can buy multi-day lift tickets that are interchangeable between the three mountains. Furthermore, some of the resorts have special deals that allow kids under 12 to ski free. Happy skiing!